In a recent email, Harry mentioned to me the importance of luck in the process of getting a manuscript to publication. It’s a funny thing, luck. Regardless of how hard and how well you work at a manuscript, of how much experience or training you have at being a wordsmith, or of how many people’s noses you thrust your finely honed masterpiece under, you still require a large dollop of seemingly random synchronicity.
Without that indefinable leg-up from the gods, it often feels that you’re running to stand still. Given the amount of effort writers put into their work – especially if it’s your first novel – it’s understandable if it gets right up your nose.
I first approached The Writers’ Workshop several years ago after receiving a plethora of rejections from agents for my first children’s fantasy novel, Gabriel’s Clock. I wasn’t a journalist; despite living in Norwich I didn’t have an MA in Creative Writing from the world famous course at the UEA, and although I had a good imagination I needed some professional assistance if the quality of my writing was going to be of the standard required for publication.
After much work, two full edits from Fay Sampson and a final once over from Harry, I finally had the confidence to send my manuscript out to agents knowing that it was better than workmanlike and that published authors had given it the thumbs-up. Cue a few more rejections (you know when it’s a rejection letter because it depressingly comes in the SAE you included with your submission to the agent in the first place), and even the comment from one agent that ‘It’s one of those where you can see it’s got merit, but I’m just not personally excited by it’. Now I know the agent was just being honest, but at that stage it felt like being punched in the groin.
My epiphany (and this is why I started this piece by talking about luck) came in early 2011 when, having had a truly rubbish week at work, I decided at the very last minute to go to the WW Festival of Writing in York. Up until that point I thought that as an existing client of WW there wasn’t much reason to go (which was mistake of gargantuan proportions). However, I could just about afford to attend on the last day, so off I went.
I arrived on the Saturday evening, and as I tried to find my way across the university campus I saw the gala evening in full swing through the windows of the refectory and felt instantly miserable. Convinced that the trip had been a colossal waste of time, I spent a restless night before having breakfast, chatting to some fellow attendees and going to my first seminar. I couldn’t really concentrate as my first one-to-one with a book doctor was coming up and I felt particularly sick. They’re just going to look at me pityingly and shake their head, I thought to myself as I sat and waited for the bell to ring and for my turn at literary speed dating to begin.
I found myself opposite a senior editor from a large publishing house, and after she pointed out the myriad technical deficiencies in the first three chapters of my novel, she smiled and said that she thought it was really good, and that I should give her a call if I couldn’t find an agent. She handed me her business card, and after thanking her I wandered out of the room feeling as though I’d stepped into Narnia.
The feeling persisted until I had the ‘meet an agent’ one-to-one mid afternoon. I was again stunned when he wanted to talk more about me as opposed to my book, and when at the end of the chat he asked to see the full manuscript I almost fell off my chair. The rest of the day was a bit of a blur, but I do remember sitting by the lake and wishing someone would bring me a gin and tonic.
A few weeks later, and David Headley from the DHH Literary Agency offered me representation. Cue another visit to Narnia. A few weeks after that, David introduced me to the staff at Andersen, who, after some further manuscript work on my part, offered me a publishing contract in late 2011.
It was at that point that the real work began, and after almost a year of editing under the highly skilled and extraordinarily patient Charlie Sheppard and Eloise Wilson, Gabriel’s Clock was signed off for publication. Artist, Sandra Dieckmann was commissioned to design the cover and internal decoration, and I couldn’t have asked for a better result. The book looks beautiful, and a few weeks ago I had the amazing experience of watching the first hardbacks emerge from the binding machine at the printers.
So there you go. If I hadn’t been lucky enough to have such a bad week at work in early 2011, I wouldn’t have gone to the festival and I wouldn’t be looking forward to the book launch on 03 October. And for that I will always be grateful. If I have any advice, it would be to use every opportunity you have to get your MS into a shape fit for submission to agents, and to attend occasions like the Festival of Writing, you never know who you’re going to meet…….
Tickets still on sale for the 2013 Festival of Writing. Each year we invite important industry players who are hungry for new talent and who look after some of the best authors in the business. Don’t miss your chance to book a one-to-one session with an agent or publisher of your choice.